Readers respond to that question with a variety of personal stories and reflections. (For related essays, see our special project Choosing My Religion.) To share the most important religious decision of your life, or remark on one of the accounts below, please drop us a note at email@example.com.
That’s what religion is to this Millennial reader, Angelle:
I’ll try to be as brief as possible, but you have to understand that it’s impossible to describe in few words what God has done for me.
The biggest religious choice I’ve made is to follow God above all things.
I was born in a Christian, Evangelical home. Before I even knew how to speak my heart believed in God. But it’s not my upbringing that allowed me to maintain in faith, but rather an ongoing set of events that kept proving me again and again that God exits, listens, and acts upon us.
God met me when my father’s stage 4, rapidly-growing cancer suddenly stopped 2cms away from destroying his brain. And when he had maxillofacial surgery to remove the cancer, the doctor couldn’t reconnect the optic nerve to his brain, but when he opened his eyes, he had perfect vision.
God met me in college, when recession had just hit, and my parents could no longer afford my education. Freshman year: I received a scholarship I never applied to. Sophomore year: I received a large donation from a stranger. Junior year: I was due to be expelled from university because of lack of payment, but instead I was given an extension until my senior year. And senior year: I was the only student in the history of a long established institution to attend graduation with a due balance.
God met me after college, when a series of life events lead me to depression, and when I consciously chose to give my life to Him. And when I asked Him to remove the pain, the suffering, the unwillingness to continue this life, He did. Beyond all comprehension or logic or tactic I could pinpoint as a proven method, He simply did.
It was only after all these events that I understood, at 25 years old, why I believe: not because I was taught to, but because life pushed me to a place where the only answer was God.
He pushed me to a feeling beyond this physical world.
He pushed me to a hope beyond rational understanding.
He pushed me to a state of indescribable peace.
He pushed me to a faith that makes a fool of what makes sense.
He met me where logic ends.
People keep looking for facts that God exists, and these facts are everywhere; most importantly within you. People just don’t know how to look, and sadly, don’t want to learn either.
This is very boring, but the biggest religious choice I’ve had to make is simply that of staying put. I was very fortunate in the tradition that I grew up in. While I am far from incurious, I found that my own tradition, with its demands and expectations of belief and behavior, held up pretty well under scrutiny. So I stayed.
Doing so has reinforced to me the value of rootedness and the flimsiness of whim, volition, and passing fancy. Doubts come and go, but I seem to inhabit a different zone from most modern Americans—not of certainty, but of inevitability. It’s true whether or not I believe it.
From a teenage Mormon reader, Madison Shumway:
A religious choice I suppose I’m still in the process of making is the one to stay in my religion rather than leave it. And while that’s not an unusual decision for many religious people to encounter at least once in their journeys in faith, I'm struggling with it a lot.
I’m 17 and a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and for a few years I was dead-set on leaving the church as soon as I left my home, even if it meant cutting off my family and community entirely. That started changing a few months ago, when I decided I would try to find faith again.
That decision didn’t immediately transform my experience, as I hoped it would. Even though I had decided I wanted to stay, and wanted to believe in this huge and grand and intangible thing that made people I knew so happy, it wasn't as easy as one choice. Faith is elusive, and I learned that even when one devotes their lives to it, belief can be hard to cultivate.
At first my big issue with the Church, and staying involved in it, was its culture—the sometimes judgmental and exclusive and downright mean behavior of some of its members. After a while I realized that the culture I hated so much was something created by its members, who are all fallible humans, rather than doctrine or a divine being. I thought that epiphany would make my faith flourish, that it would no longer be so difficult to believe in the gospel in which I so desperately wanted to believe.
But it didn’t, and my journey got harder. Reconciling personal beliefs with religious ones is hard. Overcoming the effects un-Christlike Christians can have on one’s testimony is hard.
But what is so painfully and exhaustingly tough is aching to find belief when that belief just won’t come; when all your prayer and scripture study and church attendance and commandment-following doesn’t translate into faith, like you were always taught it would; when persevering only leads to more persevering, with no easily observable effects but frustration and an increasing feeling of hopelessness.
It takes up such a huge part of my life now, all the trying and worrying and crying and discussing and begging. It affects my mental and emotional health as well as my personal relationships.
Why do I keep trying? I ask myself this every day. I guess I see something in my religion, something bigger and further away than the promised blessings righteousness is supposed to bring—I guess I see some bright and immeasurable joy, somewhere off in the horizon. And so, every day, I make the choice to keep trying.
This email from another young Mormon woman might be able to help:
You could say I’m writing this in defense of organized religion, since I'm sharing the story of how I re-found my faith. I think your reader series is really perfectly timed, since the world’s focus on religion is so negative at the moment.
I’m 25. I’m a single Mormon girl living in Salt Lake City. I grew up Mormon, but finding my current faith has been a long process. I realize that my opinion may be extremely unpopular, and it’s kind of the opposite of a lot of the pieces you’ve published. But I feel really strongly about my faith, and want to champion it.
I want to share with you part of a talk I wrote last February. The Mormon church doesn’t have just one preacher or pastor; members of the congregation are invited to prepare talks and speak in the general meeting every Sunday instead. I’ve updated it a bit, but essentially, this is what I wrote:
A few months ago, one of the Humans of New York posts caught my eye. It said: “Going through life without God is like being an astronaut tumbling out of control in outer space....you've got to stay close. You can't cut your umbilical cord.” I just love that. For me, at least life without God really is like that, directionless and terrifying.
2013, the year I left the church, was the worst year of my life. I don't say that lightly, either—I mean it. I was in a manipulative and emotionally abusive relationship for most of that year, and it, along with some leftover teenage rebellion, caused me to walk away from the church. I turned my back on all of it, including my family, for a year.
I grew up in the church, and was baptized at 8, went to church every week with my parents and younger sisters, attended all the youth meetings, etc., but it was much too easy for me to turn away. Even though I was going to church and doing all the right things, I was not applying the principles and doctrines I was learning to my life. I was just there.
One of the biggest influences on my returning to church was a book I read in 2013, called Dakota: A Spiritual Biography, by Kathleen Norris. It was her definition of sin that caught my eye: sin as “any impulse that leads us away from paying full attention to who [we are] and what we’re doing; any thought or act that interferes with our ability to love God and neighbor.” I remember reading that and thinking, wow, that’s a much better definition of sin than “doing arbitrary wrong things” or “breaking the rules.”
It was this definition that got under my skin and eventually helped me go back to church. I realized that all the principles and doctrines I’d learned growing up were still rattling around in my brain, and I realized that the very restrictions I was straining against would help me, if I followed them, to lead the kind of life I wanted to live—cleanly, soberly, and with a clear conscience. I realized I desperately wanted to stop lying to my family about, well, everything. I realized I needed something to believe in, because believing in nothing and making my own rules was such a hopeless endeavor—without the guidance of a loving God, the world did not make sense to me. I needed to believe that everything will work out in the end, even if everything looks hopeless right now, because God is in charge and He loves us, no matter what.
I’ve attached the whole talk [PDF], as it was when I gave it, if you’re at all interested in reading the whole thing. I believe that religion is an intensely personal thing, and I’m so glad for all the perspectives shared already. The fight regarding religious freedom is going to get worse before it gets better, I think.
Two military veterans share their experiences. This first reader, Tony from Boise, was deployed to the Middle East three times, once to Afghanistan and twice to Iraq:
I was raised in a very Catholic, Midwestern town in North Dakota. Church wasn’t just something you did on Sundays; it was a way of life. During lent you went to church every morning at 7 am, and you absolutely did not eat meat on Fridays during lent for fear of eternal hell fire.
The first thing that ever made me think twice about it, was the fact that after church every Sunday we would go to my grandmas, and all of the adults would sit and talk crap about everyone who was at church—who was there, who wasn’t there, who looked hungover, who sucked at singing … the list goes on and on.
After high school, I joined the Army. The turning point in my life and my view on religion is when I met a 12-year-old Iraqi girl who had lost her arm from an RPG.
It was intended for an American convoy but hit her house instead. I remember thinking, “What did she do to deserve this? If there is a guy up there, how can he justify this?”
I spent a lot of time soul-searching over that deployment and came to terms with the fact that religion isn’t for me. If anyone can justify that, and plenty of people could, it just isn’t for me. In a world where you can justify the loss of an arm of a 12-year-old girl, where does it stop? Genocides for your religion, killing yourself or others for what you believe in, has to stop.
I get along with Muslims really well now that I am in college. I connect with them, and I have nothing against them. They are people, the same as you and I. When Christians want to talk about how violent they are, I always end the conversation with “Remember the crusades?”
This next Army vet, on the other hand, stuck with his religious faith through the horrors of war. Here’s Patrick Stallings’s story:
My experience with religion has been deep and has kept me moored through the many different phases of my life. Growing up, my mom was Catholic, dad was Methodist, brothers never really went to church, and I ended up going with my granddad to a Presbyterian church.
I saw my church as full of thoughtful, introspective, and kind people. When I tagged along with my other family members, I saw much of the same. The church members weren’t outspoken about the kinds of volunteer work they did, but they were there. I remember couples fostering children, groups working in soup kitchens, and others raising money for projects across the city. It was far from perfect (my home church has split twice over LGBTQ inclusion questions), but it very much seemed a net good.
I left town and joined the Army. My first deployment (Northern Iraq 2006-2007) was brutally violent. I saw the worst of humanity, but in that darkness I also saw the best of humanity. As I worked with my platoon to stop the Islamic State of Iraq and ultimately reconcile people who had murdered each other across sectarian lines, I worked with village leaders and imams and I saw the powerful way which religion framed that reconciliation. Not only was it the part of their identity that was catalyzed to start the fighting, it was the frame of reference they used to reconcile their hatred, and ultimately forgive the “other.”
My faith was challenged, and I spent years of my spare time reading philosophy and theology, as well as reflecting as I struggled to make sense of it. Eventually, I came to feel a sense of peace as I accepted knowledge that some questions are unanswerable. Through that process I abandoned my faith and found it again. I realized that so much religious strife was due to the conflation of core tenants and theological questions, most prevalently by those with little understanding of theology or even intentionally by those who seek to weaken or co-opt religious institutions.
I continue to reflect, but in the years since I have realized how my understanding of my own faith has increased my capacity to understand and work with those who have a religious perspective that differs from my own, and how so much of the dogma that people fight over matters so little.
That’s how this reader describes her biggest test of faith:
I’m happy to see your series on religious choices. It’s something that I struggled with in college and am still examining, as a 25-year-old woman. I was raised in an evangelical “mega-church,” and at one point, I wanted to be a pastor. Neither of these things still hold true. I still consider myself a Christian, and I believe in God, but I haven’t regularly attended a church in years. And I have a lot of inner conflicts over the state of Christianity and the church as a whole.
A lot of episodes in my life have added up to my current stage of religious ambiguity. But this was the most noteworthy: When I was a freshman in college, I was in an abusive relationship with a fellow student I met through a campus Christian group.
He was mostly emotionally and psychologically abusive—a lot of telling me where to go, isolating me, gaslighting, etc.—with a few instances of physical abuse toward the end of our relationship. He based a lot of his decisions on “signs” from God and would say things like “God is telling me this about you” or “If you believed in God, then you would...” He used religion frequently to correct or belittle me and to justify how he treated me.
It shattered me that a “Christian man” would treat me this way and that he used The Bible to defend so many of his actions. The lack of support I received from that campus Christian group and from my church back home made me take a hard look at what I believed in. I especially had to examine how I was treated as a woman in the church and how I’d felt like a lesser person for a while.
When I got engaged at age 23, I joined a more liberal denomination of Christianity, which is the same church I got married in. But I still couldn’t fully reconcile my faith with my reality. My husband and I eventually stopped attending, but we often think about finding a new place of worship. I still haven’t made it happen.
I think that church and Christianity and religion in general can be incredible and powerful. But when people let their egos and their self-righteousness get in the way, that’s when we see religion crumble.
If you’ve had any similar experiences and want to share, drop us an email. Update from a helpful reader:
I have a post on my blog that is specifically aimed at helping people find a new church that is more satisfying and not abusive. You are more than welcome to share this link with your readers if you like. It could probably help many of them.
Here’s another reader with a history of abuse and a lack of support from her Christian peers:
I grew up as stereotypically evangelical as you can imagine: Midwestern, homeschooled, worked at Chick-fil-a, went on missions trips, believed in creationism, wholeheartedly believed that men were “leaders” and women were “helpers” and keepers of the home, etc.
A series of events led me to where I am today, but the biggest catalyst was likely due to a series of abuse when I was 15. A guy I had grown up with my entire life became infatuated with me and began emotionally and physically abusing me. This continued for a year-and-a-half, until he finally went to college.
The worst part was, my friends and church community didn’t think he was doing anything wrong. In fact, they blamed me for leading him on. They thought I should enter into a courtship with him and were upset that I kept refusing him. This guy hit me in the face—hard enough to leave a mark—right in front of my entire youth group. No one said a word.
It took until my senior year of high school to finally realize that none of this was ok. I became a closeted “liberal Christian,” which basically means I was okay with gay marriage and thought that women didn’t have to be the main caretakers of children. During this time, I made the mistake of telling a few of my friends that I came to believe in evolution. I lost all but one of my friends because of that, and soon after I left my faith entirely.
I’ve been secretly agnostic for a year and three days. I’m 18 now and about to finish my first year at a selective East Coast liberal arts school, which has been the best thing to ever happen to me. But I’ve yet to make my biggest religious decision: when I go home next month, do I tell my family the truth about my lack of faith?
No one back home knows, and I don’t want to keep lying to them. I don’t think I even can anymore. But I know if I do, I’ll either be disowned or pulled out of my college and kept at home. I don’t have good options. But I don’t regret losing my faith at all. The only regret that I have is that I’m too scared to try to help my younger brother, who’s in the same place I was religiously when I was 16.
Religion is supposed to give you peace. That’s what I always was taught, that we should have peace because we have certainty and trust in God. That was never true for me. When I was religious, I lived in constant, internal turmoil. Ever since I embraced agnosticism and welcomed uncertainty, I’ve been more at peace with myself than I’ve ever been.
We previously heard from a reader who found religion by reading philosophy, namely the works of Christian apologist William Lane Craig, but the reader eventually turned back to agnosticism. The following reader, Ryan, seems on more solid religious ground after his reason-based conversion:
I’m 30 years old. I grew up in the South in a nominally Christian household. We went to a non-denominational church some when I was growing up, but I didn’t really stick with it. In middle school, I decided religion didn’t make much sense, and I associated it with ignorance of science and history. My mom knew I was agnostic but didn’t care as long as I didn’t say to her “There is no God.” I had a lot of questions about belief in the modern world that my parents lacked the theological know-how to answer.
For awhile, I found hope and optimism in a humanistic view of the world. I thought technology, the right politics, and time would eventually bring about a humanistic utopia.
However, by the time I was out of college, I had adopted an angry, nihilistic view of the Universe and a dim view of humanity. I wasn’t depressed, but I would go through weeks where I would have panic attacks over God not existing and the world being a terrible place. The atheist answer that a godless Universe was an exciting place waiting to be explored and understood didn’t resonate with me. Technology (particularly the Internet) often seemed to allow humanity to commit the same errors of judgement on a larger scale.
The turning point was when I met my wife and her family.
Her parents were Catholic. My wife and her three siblings had left the Catholic Church over its views on homosexuality, abortion, and women’s role in the Church. Her parents didn’t hold their children’s self-imposed exile against them, nor were they dogmatic about the issues that had turned their children away from the Church. Her parents also saw no conflict between science and religion.
As I was around her parents and saw what great people they were, I decided they knew something I didn’t. I realized that all the best people I had ever known throughout my life were Christians and that I agreed with the basic tenants of Christianity and its model of humility and kindness towards others. After reading C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity and Miracles, I decided I could rationally believe in God if I wanted to.
After a few weeks of agonizing, I eventually worked up the courage to ask my wife if she would go to church with me. When we went, I was too nervous to focus much on believing in God. I didn’t feel a belief in God, but I figured that if I kept going to church and prayed, perhaps the mask of faith could become real faith.
My wife and I are currently attending an Episcopal Church together. She’s still trying to figure out if she is a Christian. For me, it’s the only religion I feel like I have a chance of believing in. I find the weekly experience of liturgy a comforting and powerful reminder of Christ’s message. While attending a Maundy Thursday service I had the thought, “I’m not sure how someone couldn’t believe in this” and realized that I had become a Christian. I am hoping to be baptized within the next year and praying each day for hope.
Embedded above is the most popular installment on YouTube of C.S. Lewis’s BBC broadcast of Mere Christianity, discussing the role of “moral law” in human behavior. The book actually followed the broadcasts, which aired between 1942 and 1944.
“No one chose this imprisonment.” That’s our latest reader pushing back on the previous one, both of whom were raised by JWs but developed very different attitudes toward the church and its practice of disfellowshipping—the complete shunning of an apostate JW by both congregants and family members. Here’s her story:
I’d like to offer a reply to the reader who split hairs on the free preconditions of baptism and disfellowshipping. She presumes that the commitment to baptism is a free one, and that the consequences of breaking the commitment are thus chosen. Perhaps this is the case for adults who have life experience with which they can actually make an measured decision about what it means to “be no part of the world.”
What if you’ve never been in the world? Or what if your experience of the world is completely filtered through Watchtower-shaped lenses?
I am an on-the-books Witness, having taken the plunge at 14. I was pressured by my family, congregation, and friends to “get baptized” and was obsessed by the fear of being “worldly”—as in, under the influence of Satan the Devil, not a sophisticated, smart, and cosmopolitan person (When I realized that that was what “worldly” meant to everyone else, I had to laugh. I really had no idea).
Many people “raised in the Truth” (what Witnesses call their faith) are encouraged to get baptized in their teens. If they don’t, they are looked at a bit askance. My best friend and I used to fervently discuss whether we would be kept out of the Paradise for swearing, listening to Nirvana, or checking out skater boys. If we got baptized, we reasoned, we’d be protected.
This is not an uncommon belief, and it is utterly reasonable for a religion of myriad behavioral restrictions. After baptism, we would stop even wanting to be “worldly” because we wouldn’t be anymore! And when she did get baptized, she seemed so righteous. So I did it, too. I was terrified of being shunned or otherwise left ungirded in a world that had been described since childhood as a place where Satan walked around invisibly, just waiting to eat you up.
Witnesses strive to limit their members’ social world to only “the friends” (what they are, and what everyone else isn’t). I wanted to fit in, please my parents, and do what I thought would save me. I was bright, highly adept at acting as though I believed everything I ought to—so adept that I fooled not only the elders and my parents, but myself.
I’ve been “inactive” for over a decade, and the reason I’m not disfellowshipped is because I refuse to subject myself to the “judicial” procedures your reader describes. If I were to become disfellowshipped, I know that my parents and brother would probably stop talking to me, and my mother has said as much. So, I remain in a limbo, which I don’t mind at all, considering that I think the entire process is abused and abusive.
Your reader’s mother, according to her own description, used the disfellowshipping process as a method of skewering her father (she doesn’t say what “actions” the father did) so that she could be free to marry someone else. She went through all that process rather than questioning the rule.
I’ve seen this play out painfully. I watched our neighbor get into her car from my driveway as a small child as my mother told me: “You can’t talk to Anna anymore.” Anna (I’m using pseudonyms, to ensure privacy) was a woman I knew since birth, who cared for me as a baby, whose yard I played in and whose snacks I ate and whose dog bit me. I found out later than Anna got disfellowshipped “on purpose": She had had sex with another guy, Bill, in the congregation, so they could both leave their spouses, knowing they’d get disfellowshipped.
Anna and Bill did marry, but that was not the primary purpose for the adultery. Anna’s husband, Mark, was gay (a fact I also found out later; I don’t know why Bill needed out of his marriage nor should I need to know). Mark's second wife Nancy, who was an anointed Witness (one of those few chosen to serve in heaven), left him too (for a woman).
Anna and Nancy probably did not realize that they were marrying a gay man. Not only were they forbidden from having any sexual intimacy before marriage, Mark was forbidden from admitting his sexuality. Everyone lost.
No one chose this imprisonment. The strictures of the religion are so numerous and invasive that the way they end up playing out in the real world are absurd and incredibly sad. My own parents told me that they had considered divorcing and were at the point of deciding who would do the cheating-disfellowshipping combo to free them.
Disfellowshipping, as your reader mentions, is the way the religion keeps itself “clean.” From what, exactly? Mustachioed gay men who love musical theater and porkpie hats? (That was Mark, to a T.)
If a religion’s grasp on reality is so tenuous that it depends on painful and complicated measures of shunning to make sure it’s “clean,” it qualifies for criticism. Doing so isn’t “misinformation or intolerance,” as your reader puts it.
Update from one more anonymous reader, who complicates our JW discussion even further:
I was mostly raised as a Jehovah's Witness. I was baptized at 13. I attended and graduated from an Ivy League university while still an active member. I stopped attending meetings when I was in my mid-20s. I had done nothing that would warrant my disfellowshipping, though I am sure at this point I have.
Though I am no longer an active member, my mother is. We maintain a close relationship. She is, objectively, a lovely human being. We just don’t see eye to eye about some things. I think we are at peace with that, though I can’t pretend it wasn’t difficult at first.
These facts would seem to make me an anomaly among the voices that have so far been published. I know that I am not. I know many people in similar situations who made the choice to leave the religion, or simply drifted away, and were not shunned by their families.
Some occasionally participate, some never do. I know many, many “complicated” Jehovah's Witnesses family—married couples where one is a Jehovah’s Witness and one is an active member of another church, and where people move in and out of levels of active involvement, disassociate themselves, become disfellowshipped, become reinstated.
Of course, as in any group, there is great social pressure to conform. I don’t find this to be an exclusively JW phenomenon. If I had not been more or less raised as a Jehovah’s Witness (although my father was not a member, and in fact most of my family members are not), I would not have gotten baptized. Then again, social pressure or not, I chose it at the time. Many in my peer group were baptized years after I was, or not at all.
Some churches baptize infants. That baptism may become essentially meaningless to that individual, as mine eventually became to me. It just happened at different times.
I also attended Catholic elementary/middle school, which did not at all jeopardize my baptism or standing in the church. I was excused from Mass, as were the Muslim students in the school. I had Jehovah;s Witness friends who attended the same college as me. When I return home to visit my mother, I am not ignored on the street by Jehovah’s Witnesses I knew growing up.
I suppose my point is that while it is a much smaller, and therefore much less well understood religious group, it is no more or less constricting than other religious experiences. Some people believe fervently, some barely at all but just go with it to keep the peace at home.
I don’t agree with all of the Jehovah's Witness belief system, and that is why I left. I am against organized religion entirely. However, I believe that religion at its best provides a support community to its adherents, especially during difficult times, and if that’s what anyone gets out of religious observance, more power to them.
Update from yet another former JW, Rachel:
I was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, although I was very skeptical of the teachings. By the time I was 16, my social life was severely impacted by my hesitation to get baptized. Since I wasn’t allowed any friendships with non-JWs, I got baptized to solve the problem. My sister was baptized at the same time, although she was only 12.
I tried my best to fit into the religion, but gradually fell away from the homophobia, gossip, and informal shunning. I still believed, but I had no desire for an eternal life with my fellow congregants under any circumstances.
A few years later, my sister got married. I had a panic attack in the parking lot of the Kingdom Hall, terrified of the shunning I was about to face, even though I wasn’t disfellowshipped. After this experience, something felt so wrong that I had to resolve it. I started researching online, finding information on the origins of the religion and the corruption and indifference of it’s leadership. I kept quiet about all of this, never discussing it with my still-in family.
A few years later, my then-fiance became embroiled in a drama within his family that led to his father being disfellowshipped. I was not involved, but since he was on their radar, so was I. I received a series of certified letters, which I never picked up.
Then, one Saturday, as I came in from my run, I saw two elders on my porch. There was no where to hide. They told me I had been disfellowshipped in absentia. I hadn’t been to a meeting in over eight years at that point, did not consider myself a Jehovah’s Witness, and never spoke about the religion with anyone.
My sister only speaks to me at funerals. My mother is more lenient. My father and brothers have left the religion. But it is as if a bomb went off in my family. We are never in the same room together. We are distant, and rarely have contact. Years have been lost between us.
I’ve moved to another state, where no JW knows me. Sometimes I pass by a Kingdom Hall, and I feel so badly for them.
I am overwhelmed and angered by the misinformation being supplied by your readers. Many of them are leaving out vital information. Only if you are baptized can you be disfellowshipped. Baptism is not a requirement in the church nor is it a choice one can frivolously make.
I am not baptized, but both my parents were; my mother is baptized but inactive, and my father was disfellowshipped. I was raised in the Kingdom Hall [the JW term for church building] until I was a young teen, and then allowed to choose my own path. At 28, I still hold many of the beliefs (I abstain from holidays and attend the observance of [Nisan 14], also known as The Memorial of Christ’s death), but I am not baptized and do not plan on becoming baptized because I know I could not follow all the rules. I have been told that the path to baptism takes around two years. One must be old enough to choose for themselves (16+ usually), have intense Bible study, and then pass a rigorous test administered by the elders on Bible knowledge.
For one to act as though they were shocked by their disfellowshipping and the subsequent behavior of baptized family and friends is like one being surprised that their spouse has divorced them and doesn’t wish to communicate after cheating. They chose to make a lifelong vow and broke it, fully aware of the potential consequences. No one forced them to be baptized; it was their own free will and choice. Again, without that choice, they would not have been in a position to be disfellowshipped in the first place.
I asked the reader a few followup questions, such as the rough percentage of JW church-goers who are baptized and some key distinctions between members of different commitment levels:
I am no longer an active member of a congregation (admittedly, I now only darken the door for the Memorial). I would guess if you walked into a Kingdom Hall on a Sunday morning the majority of attendees (minus children) will be baptized or preparing for baptism. I think generally people who make the effort and commitment to go to church regularly are more likely to commit in other ways, such as baptism, whereas those who are not serious about baptism probably drop off and rarely attend because it is not required of them. There is no term for an unbaptized believer, but I cannot call myself “one of Jehovah’s Witnesses” as an unbaptized adult; I can only say that I was raised as one.
There are three ways for baptized members to leave the church (but they will forever be considered baptized): disfellowshipment, disassociation, and becoming inactive.
Let me interrupt real quick to illustrate the difference between disfellowshipment and disassociation, explained here by a different reader (the first of two readers excerpted in our previous note) in a followup email:
Just to clarify, my wife and I weren’t disfellowshipped. We disassociated ourselves, which is a technicality of sorts, but also very different. We committed no wrong and left because we no longer wanted to carry the label of Jehovah’s Witnesses, since we disagreed with their position on many things. People are disfellowshipped for moral failings. We disassociated because of their failings. Our leaving was voluntary.
Back to our dissenting reader:
An inactive member is someone who does not maintain steady attendance at the Hall nor keeps up with going out in service. Very rarely would someone who’s inactive be disfellowshipped, as the whole point of disfellowshipping is to keep the church “clean,” and if someone isn’t attending, then they can’t quite taint it.
However, the only grounds for divorce in the church is adultery. If a divorce is obtained for any other reason, remarrying another Witness is not possible.
My father was inactive when my parents divorced and my mother wanted to remarry a Witness, so she brought my father’s actions before the elders. It was a long process—interviews with family members, opportunities given to him to repent, etc. He could try to be reinstated now, like most disfellowshipped people, probably by attending all meetings for a year, asking for Bible study, showing repentance and writing a letter to the elders to ask for consideration.
I really appreciate you allowing me the opportunity to try and shed more light on this issue. Please don’t help spread misinformation or fan flames of intolerance. I was bullied horribly in school due to my beliefs, all the way through college (mostly by the administration at my state school—I was also an employee). The amount of discrimination Witnesses face is pretty incredible sometimes; people lose their minds over others not celebrating holidays, for instance. Say you are/were a Witness and you risk others being convinced you want to proselytize them.
I understand the religion has some issues—all do—but what can be expected from organizations led by imperfect men?
Here’s a moving confessional from reader Doug on the biggest religious choice of his life—leaving organized religion—which in turn forced him to make a few other hard choices:
As a child and a teenager, I was kind of in and out of church. My mom is pretty religious but my father is not. But whenever I was in church, I was very involved. I went several times a week (to services or Bible studies or events), and I even taught and preached on a regular basis. I was very religious throughout college and intended to become a full-time missionary overseas. I got engaged to a very smart, very loving, and very Christian young lady.
Three months before we were to get married (and the week before my last semester’s final exams), my best friend suddenly got bacterial meningitis and died.
That was 11 years ago, but I vividly remember praying in the hospital room that God would save him. I remember thinking about how James 5:16 says, “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” And I knew that I wasn’t really righteous, so I made sure to call the most righteous men I knew and asked them to pray. And I knew that Mark 11:24 says, “Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” I genuinely believed that God would save my best friend … but my best friend died.
And according to my beliefs at that time (and the beliefs of millions of Americans), my best friend was going to go to Hell because he was not a Christian. And so this was the major event that I’d say shook my faith.
However, I also still believed that the truth was not contingent on what I wanted to be true. It didn’t make sense to stop believing something simply because I didn’t like it anymore.
Yet there was another event that completely sealed my loss of faith. And that was about eight months after my friend died in 2004, the major tsunami hit Indonesia and immediately wiped out like 80,000 people. After that I just couldn’t believe in evangelical Christianity ever again. I couldn’t believe that God would allow 80,000 people, most of whom were not Christians (as Indonesia is actually the largest Muslim country in the world), to die at the hands of Mother Nature … only to spend eternity in Hell. There was no way I could any longer believe in that kind of God.
So, what happened? My fiancee and I went ahead and went through with the wedding (it is really hard to cancel a wedding once the invitations have all been sent out). We argued constantly about religion for two and a half years. I didn’t want to go to church anymore, but I had to go. Sometimes I wasn’t paying attention enough for her satisfaction. It hurt her knowing that the most important thing in her life, her faith, was no longer shared with me. She constantly pointed out, correctly, that I had changed—not her.
So, after two-and-a-half years, we got divorced. I did initiate it. But honestly, at that point I was struggling so much with my best friend’s death that it was in her best interest to be free of me anyway.
I did not become a missionary, so I had to go find a job in the real world helping make money for the man. And it took me many years before I really found out what I wanted to do.
It’s been 11 years since my best friend’s death and I’m still not religious (though interestingly I am trying to make God a part of my life again … but without the formal religion and believing in scriptures). I could have pretended to still believe to try to save my marriage and keep my career plan, but I can’t ever lie to myself. I enjoyed doing Christian work and I enjoyed teaching. But I’ve just had to find other avenues to use my abilities and explore my interests in life.
In this video from atheist blogger Hemant Mehta, the second of his “nine things you should Know About Jehovah’s Witnesses” regards disfellowship, which involves not just getting kicked out of a congregation for disobeying the church, but the complete shunning of the individual by JWs, including members of his or her own family:
Here are two more stories from readers who parted ways with the JWs. The first one voluntary left the church after being shunned while the second one was straight-up disfellowshipped:
I am writing in response to “a Jehovah’s Witness reader,” which was an update to “Disowning A Daughter Over A Church.” Yes, Jehovah’s Witnesses do discourage higher education. A recent quote from Anthony Morris, one of the seven governing body members that are responsible for the teachings, is as follows:
I have long said: the better the university, the greater the danger. The most intelligent and eloquent professors will be trying to reshape the thinking of your child, and their influence can be tremendous.
There he directly links higher education as being a danger. It is taken from his own words in video on the tv.jw.org website. There are numerous articles and talks that have been given regarding the dangers of education.
I was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses until last year when I, at the age of 38, having spent a lifetime in the organization, found myself shunned. What grievous sin did I commit?
I reached out to my brother who had been disfellowshipped for 14 years or so after shunning him for the entire time. I realized that the scripture your reader quoted in 1 Corinthians 5:9-13 may have applied at one point when my brother was initially disfellowshipped, however shunning him forever is just ridiculous. He is living an upright, moral life, none of the things listed in the scripture that was cherry picked to support a heartless, controlling doctrine used to keep the rank and file in order.
I apologized profusely because I realized that rather than love being kind as the scriptures stated, it had been turned into something ugly. I realized that if I greeted those who were my brother only, I was no different than anyone else like Jesus said. I realized that if God is love, maybe I should represent that and that shunning is psychological torture inflicted on another to manipulated them to coming back. It has nothing to do with making that person return to God, and everything to do with them returning to a man-made organization.
My wife and I disassociated formally from the organization that was our entire lives, the most difficult thing we ever had to do. But life is good now, and my wife and I bask in sweet freedom from an oppressive organization that holds its members captive. We lost a lot, but we gained even more.
The other JW reader:
Your note resonated with me so much because I am a former Jehovah’s Witness who has been disfellowshipped twice. The first time I was in my early 20s and the second time I was in my late 20s. Both times were because I had engaged in sexual activity and was not married.
The first time, I was in total agreement with the decision of the elders in my congregation. I had recently finished volunteering for the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society a little more than a year or so before and was still actively trying to live my life according to “Jehovah’s standards.”
Even the second time, while the circumstances surrounding that instance was quite different, I agreed in principle to the decision. But it was at that time that I decided that I was not going to make an effort to get reinstated and no longer wanted to be Witness.
My older sister disassociated herself from the organization when I was in my teens and my older brother is disfellowshipped as well. My twin sister is active in the organization and basically has nothing to do with any of her siblings. Recently, at my grandmother’s funeral, she told us all that she really wanted us all “to come back,” meaning back to the organization so that she could have a relationship with us.
What I find interesting is that while the onus is often on those who are disfellowshipped or decide they no longer want to be part of the organization to “repent” so that their loved ones can associate with them again, no one really thinks about the impact that has on those who have to bear the weight of being the cause of family discord because they decided to explore their own options as far as life and spirituality go. We are the bad guys because we have “forced them” into the position of “choosing God or choosing family.”
My mother has had a strained relationship with my older sister for decades and this is mainly due to her wanting to adhere to so called “Bible standards” in relation to disassociated and disfellowshipped family members. Being someone who has served in several capacities within the organization, I know that this “shunning,” as it were, is not consistently applied to all members. There are some that have been disciplined within the congregation for similar, if not more egregious, acts and were not disfellowshipped.
One might even live what is considered a “double life,” and as long as they are not exposed or they do not go and reveal their wrongdoings to the elders, they remain in good standing. In my case, I was admonished by a distant relative, when I faced this the second time, to go to the elders or he would have to.
It has been about eight years and I have barely spoken to my twin sister, or any other members of my family who are Witnesses. There have been times where my sister and others have been in my mother’s house and I was there and they barely spoke, if they spoke at all.
The crazy thing is, when I went to the elders, I was really seeking their guidance in relation to the woman I was seeing because I was, in fact, planning to marry her. It took eight weeks for them to finally meet with me and when they did, they told me there was nothing they could do because they had given me plenty of time to either get married or end the relationship.
While we all must be held responsible for the decisions we make in life, one should not be expected to just except such archaic practices because it is said to be “in the name of” whomever we call God. The truth of the matter is, no loving god would ever subject his creation to rules and principles and discipline such as this. Dealing with this and the discord it has caused within my family has led me to question every single thing I was ever taught about God by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Thanks again for opening this dialogue, because there are a lot of people suffering due to imperfections and sinful tendencies and being subject to this unfair practice when there are much, much bigger things happening in the world.
If you’re a Jehovah’s Witness and would like to defend the church, or simply talk about your positive experience there, please let us know.
That’s the brief path that reader Matthew took on his journey through faith and doubt:
I think that I’ve made two big religious choices in my life—one was going from a “cafeteria Catholic” to a religious Catholic at the age of 16, and the other was becoming an agnostic a year later.
My family was never particularly religious, but I was baptized, had my first communion, was confirmed, and we would attend church occasionally. I’m not really sure how I felt about religion—I don’t recall if I ever thought about God’s existence, the meaning of religion, and what not. I remember being interested in the discussions in Sunday School, but I don’t think I ever thought about whether God existed. Either I just didn’t care or I believed it without being particularly religious.
Around the time when I turned 16, my dad introduced me to the Christian philosopher, theologian, and apologist William Lane Craig. It was life-changing for me.
For one, I became extremely interested in the subject of philosophy and those juicy speculative questions about the existence of God, the meaning of life, morality, the laws of nature, consciousness, etc. I’m even a Philosophy major right now in college.
The second thing though, and the thing relevant to the topic, is that I became religious. Dr. Craig is well-known for debating with atheists and arguing for the existence of God using philosophical arguments, and I became convinced that those arguments were sound. I’m not really sure why I became religious after that; maybe I was never sure that God existed and became sure after hearing those arguments? Maybe I just realized the importance of religion—how, if all this is true, it is really life changing? I’m not sure, but I became religious—started reading theology, praying, going to church, etc.
I think, from studying philosophy, I also became convinced that it is important to have evidence or reasons for your beliefs. If I didn’t have reasons for being a Christian, I thought, why not be a Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, etc.? Without evidence or reasons, they all seemed the same and equally implausible. However, I believed that there was evidence for God and for Jesus being God.
Eventually, however, I began to lose faith in the arguments for the existence of God and also began to realize how complex all these issues were and how little I’d studied. Even asides from the philosophy, I was believing that the whole Bible is true without having read the whole thing nor read the scholarship on it. I also began to worry how I could know that I’m right when there were also so many intelligent people on “the other side”?
So, since what seemed to be underpinning my belief in God were the arguments, when I became skeptical of the arguments, I became skeptical of religion and became agnostic. (I’ve always been kind of skeptical of “religious experience” because I thought there could be psychological explanations for that, but that’s another tangent.) Like I said earlier, this only happened about a year later, so I was only really “religious” for a short period of time.
About four years later, I’m still agnostic. Perhaps it’s just ingrained in me because of my religious upbringing and other people don’t feel this way, but I really would like to be religious again. I find religion to be beautiful, and I think it gives meaning to life and hope in the face of suffering. I would like to have faith, or I’d like to perhaps be religious for existential reasons rather than metaphysical ones—so just believe and let it give meaning to my life and not worry so much about the truth of the matter, since I guess if it’s not true, but I enjoyed being religious, it’s not like there were any negatives to being religious in my life … sort of like a Pascal’s Wager kind of thing.
Also, I know everyone doesn’t feel this way and I know this isn’t a rational thing to say, but I just have a feeling that there’s gotta be something more to life …
When I was 12, I figured out this gay thing wasn’t going away and I had a choice. I could remain in the faith of my father [Catholicism] and hate myself, or I could stop believing. I stopped believing and became an angry teenage atheist who would have adored Richard Dawkins if he’d been present in that role at the time.
It wasn’t until I moved to Seattle and met religious people who weren’t your stereotypical fundamentalist nuts that I realized that it was possible for people like that to exist. Then I met my college best friend, who led me back to religion in the weirdest way.
She spoke French. I’d learned German in high school, so we had no shared private language to talk to each other on the bus. We agreed to study a new one together and settled on Hebrew.
After the first year, I spent a summer in Israel studying intensely. Then I changed my major. Then I found that Judaism was a gentler faith, Reform Judaism was accepting, and the ancient ritual appealed to me, largely because of my Catholic upbringing.
I gained my faith back and converted. My husband converted as well, and our son is at temple each week.
My parents are happy with this. They’re sad their grandson will never be baptized and they don’t understand a lot of what we talk about, since their Jewish best friends aren’t terribly observant. But they appreciate that their son and grandson are deeply involved in a religious community. It would have been theirs if the church weren’t so traumatizing to gay kids.
I am 26, and I went through a personal crisis regarding religion when I was a freshman in college. I am a “cradle Catholic,” baptized in the Roman Catholic Church as an infant, and raised by two religious parents. I went to Catholic elementary and middle schools, and I was heavily involved with music and youth ministries at my parish during high school.
I also suffered, from about age 13, from severe depression. At times, my faith was literally the only thing that kept me going. Sometimes it was more fear motivated by faith than anything else, but I say it was faith nonetheless.
When I got to university, I was exposed in a much bigger way to dialogue about LGBT issues, especially marriage, since this was right before and after the passage of Proposition 8 in California.
I began to struggle with the idea that the Church would never accept same-sex marriage and what that meant about the status of those were gay in the Church. I remember feeling as though I was having a crisis of conscience, wondering how anything less than full rights for LGBT persons could be Christian.
I stopped attending mass with any frequency, and I contemplated leaving the Catholic Church for the Episcopal Church. My depression worsened, because I felt as though abandoning my faith would be an abandonment of what had kept me alive for the past few years.
In the end, although the decision took the few years while I was in school, I decided not to leave the Catholic Church. The questions and discomfort I had sparked a research and learning process into theology, ethics, and the history of marriage. This process forced me to examine my own ethics and behavior, in the context of what makes an action “sinful,” and how individual Christians are called to react to sin. The beliefs that I hold now are in accordance with Church teaching, but they often put me at odds with other American Catholics, who use the Church’s teachings on sacramental marriage as a front for homophobia.
Ultimately, I was influenced to stay by the belief that in order for faith to be a transformative and positive institution, members of the faithful cannot choose to follow only those tenets which feel good or are convenient to them personally and at the moment. This idea flies in the face of modern American culture, which emphasizes both convenience and choice.
There are other Catholic teachings that I struggle personally with to this day, though none as significantly as I did with same-sex marriage, but I cope with them with the faith and hope that I can improve myself and the world around me through my journey of faith.
I have greatly enjoyed your reader series so far, and I look forward to the rest.
Midnight Mass is a morally urgent critique of how faith can fuel everyday cruelty and violence.
This story contains spoilers for the Netflix series Midnight Mass.
The Exorcist is a film I’ve long loved because it raised the bar not just for horror, but also for movies that explore questions of faith and doubt, good and evil, life and death. I know all of its beats by heart, but when I recently rewatched the 1973 classic, the ending hit differently. The movie concludes with an exorcism, naturally. Chris MacNeil has brought her daughter, Regan, to a host of medical professionals in a desperate attempt to save her from what turns out to be a demonic possession. But the only person who can save the girl, it seems, is a priest. The camera lingers on the mother’s exhausted face as two priests close the door to her daughter’s bedroom and go to work.
The election of the elders of an evangelical church is usually an uncontroversial, even unifying event. But this summer, at an influential megachurch in Northern Virginia, something went badly wrong. A trio of elders didn’t receive 75 percent of the vote, the threshold necessary to be installed.
“A small group of people, inside and outside this church, coordinated a divisive effort to use disinformation in order to persuade others to vote these men down as part of a broader effort to take control of this church,” David Platt, a 43-year-old minister at McLean Bible Church and a best-selling author, charged in a July 4 sermon.
Platt said church members had been misled, having been told, among other things, that the three individuals nominated to be elders would advocate selling the church building to Muslims, who would convert it into a mosque. In a second vote on July 18, all three nominees cleared the threshold. But that hardly resolved the conflict. Members of the church filed a lawsuit, claiming that the conduct of the election violated the church’s constitution.
Thousands of pages of internal documents offer the clearest picture yet of how Facebook endangers American democracy—and show that the company’s own employees know it.
Before I tell you what happened at exactly 2:28 p.m. on Wednesday, January 6, 2021, at the White House—and how it elicited a very specific reaction, some 2,400 miles away, in Menlo Park, California—you need to remember the mayhem of that day, the exuberance of the mob as it gave itself over to violence, and how several things seemed to happen all at once.
At 2:10 p.m., a live microphone captured a Senate aide’s panicked warning that “protesters are in the building,” and both houses of Congress began evacuating.
At 2:13 p.m., Vice President Mike Pence was hurried off the Senate floor and out of the chamber.
At 2:15 p.m., thunderous chants were heard: “Hang Mike Pence! Hang Mike Pence!”
At the White House, President Donald Trump was watching the insurrection live on television. The spectacle excited him. Which brings us to 2:28 p.m., the moment when Trump shared a message he had just tweeted with his 35 million Facebook followers: “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution … USA demands the truth!”
The James Webb Space Telescope, the long-awaited successor to Hubble, is mired in controversy over its namesake.
In 1999, Karen Knierman picked up a free mug at her first big astronomy conference, just before she started grad school. It bore the logo of an ambitious observatory, designed to peer at the most distant galaxies in the universe: NGST, short for Next Generation Space Telescope. The mug was on Knierman’s desk in 2002 when NASA made a surprise announcement: NGST was going to become JWST, after James Webb. Knierman sipped from her suddenly out-of-date mug and wondered, Who?
That was the prevailing reaction among scientists at the time. Webb, who died in 1992, was more of a behind-the-scenes manager than a space-science star; he had served as NASA’s second administrator, in the 1960s, during the run-up to the Apollo moon landings. But scientists went with the rebrand. Work on the telescope continued. Scientists got new merch, new mugs.
Claims about the drug are based on shoddy science—but that science is entirely unremarkable in its shoddiness.
Ivermectin is an antiparasitic drug, and a very good one. If you are infected with the roundworms that cause river blindness or the parasitic mites that cause scabies, it is wonderfully effective. It is cheap; it is accessible; and its discoverers won the Nobel Prize in 2015. It has also been widely promoted as a coronavirus prophylactic and treatment.
This promotion has been broadly criticized as a fever dream conceived in the memetic bowels of the internet and as a convenient buttress for bad arguments against vaccination. This is not entirely fair. Perhaps 70 to 100 studies have been conducted on the use of ivermectin for treating or preventing COVID-19; several dozen of them support the hypothesis that the drug is a plague mitigant. Twometa-analyses, which looked at data aggregated across subsets of these studies, concluded that the drug has value in the fight against the pandemic.
A brilliant new account upends bedrock assumptions about 30,000 years of change.
Many years ago, when I was a junior professor at Yale, I cold-called a colleague in the anthropology department for assistance with a project I was working on. I didn’t know anything about the guy; I just selected him because he was young, and therefore, I figured, more likely to agree to talk.
Five minutes into our lunch, I realized that I was in the presence of a genius. Not an extremely intelligent person—a genius. There’s a qualitative difference. The individual across the table seemed to belong to a different order of being from me, like a visitor from a higher dimension. I had never experienced anything like it before. I quickly went from trying to keep up with him, to hanging on for dear life, to simply sitting there in wonder.
Breaking up social-media companies is one way to fix them. Shutting their users up is a better one.
Your social life has a biological limit: 150. That’s the number—Dunbar’s number, proposed by the British psychologist Robin Dunbar three decades ago—of people with whom you can have meaningful relationships.
What makes a relationship meaningful? Dunbar gave TheNew York Times a shorthand answer: “those people you know well enough to greet without feeling awkward if you ran into them in an airport lounge”—a take that may accidentally reveal the substantial spoils of having produced a predominant psychological theory. The construct encompasses multiple “layers” of intimacy in relationships. We can reasonably expect to develop up to 150 productive bonds, but we have our most intimate, and therefore most connected, relationships with only about five to 15 closest friends. We can maintain much larger networks, but only by compromising the quality or sincerity of those connections; most people operate in much smaller social circles.
Internal documents show the company routinely placing public-relations, profit, and regulatory concerns over user welfare. And if you think it’s bad here, look beyond the U.S.
In the fall of 2019, Facebook launched a massive effort to combat the use of its platforms for human trafficking. Working around the clock, its employees searched Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram for keywords and hashtags that promoted domestic servitude in the Middle East and elsewhere. Over the course of a few weeks, the company took down 129,191 pieces of content, disabled more than 1,000 accounts, tightened its policies, and added new ways to detect this kind of behavior. After they were through, employees congratulated one another on a job well done.
It was a job well done. It just came a little late. In fact, a group of Facebook researchers focused on the Middle East and North Africa had found numerous Instagram profiles being used as advertisements for trafficked domestic servants as early as March 2018. “Indonesian brought with Tourist Visa,” one photo caption on a picture of a woman reads, in Arabic. “We have more of them.” But these profiles weren’t “actioned”—disabled or taken down—an internal report would explain, because Facebook’s policies “did not acknowledge the violation.” A year and a half later, an undercover BBC investigation revealed the full scope of the problem: a broad network that illegally trafficked domestic workers, facilitated by internet platforms and aided by algorithmically boosted hashtags. In response, Facebook banned one hashtag and took down some 700 Instagram profiles. But according to another internal report, “domestic servitude content remained on the platform.”
Different chemically than it was a decade ago, the drug is creating a wave of severe mental illness and worsening America’s homelessness problem.
In the fall of 2006, law enforcement on the southwest border of the United States seized some crystal methamphetamine. In due course, a five-gram sample of that seizure landed on the desk of a 31-year-old chemist named Joe Bozenko, at the Drug Enforcement Administration lab outside Washington, D.C.
Organic chemistry can be endlessly manipulated, with compounds that, like Lego bricks, can be used to build almost anything. The field seems to breed folks whose every waking minute is spent puzzling over chemical reactions. Bozenko, a garrulous man with a wide smile, worked in the DEA lab during the day and taught chemistry at a local university in the evenings. “Chemist by day, chemist by night,” his Twitter bio once read.
Rich societies were turning inward even before the pandemic, but Bernard-Henri Lévy won’t let them ignore atrocities elsewhere.
Bernard-Henri Lévy is a French philosopher who wears elegant suits, cites Hegel, and visits war zones. The first part of his new book, The Will to See, references conversations with Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, and Gilles Deleuze, among other French postmodernists; the latter part describes horrific scenes of violence in Somalia, Nigeria, and Ukraine, among other places. We in the English-speaking world are not accustomed to this combination of themes, and our first instinct is to snicker.
Those so inclined should go right ahead, for there is no insult, no criticism, no mockery that you can direct at Lévy that he has not already heard and probably cited, somewhere, in a self-deprecating comment. The list of his detractors is very long, and the terms they use are not kind: “Pomposity and self-promotion are his vices,” wrote Paul Berman, as far back as 1995. In the book as well as a new documentary Lévy has written and co-directed, also called The Will to See—now showing at film festivals in English, and perhaps to be more widely released next year—he makes several wry references to the opprobrium his various engagements have inspired (“There is the war in Libya, of course, for which I have been lavishly criticized”). But don’t let the instinct to insult him overwhelm you, for the book and the film raise questions that are rarely posed so starkly. Do people in the wealthier, more fortunate parts of the world owe anything to those who live in the poorest and unluckiest places? Should we interest ourselves in the fate of people fighting wars that we don’t even know exist? What do we accomplish by describing and filming them? Should we try to help?